Tuesday, March 7, 2017

5 years in the writing business -- revised advice

One of my first blog entries was advice to new writers. Writers and editors keep asking me, but a lot has changed in five years. It's a *lot* harder now to succeed.

The primary goal of a writer is to write … but if you want other people to read it or to pay your editors/artists, you need to invest time like any other small business owner. Between books and on weekends, I spend a lot of time doing something we’ll broadly call marketing.

+ The best marketing is a satisfied customer. If someone likes your work, they will tell their friends and often buy every book in your series or in that genre. Unfortunately, unless a series isn’t selling anything that month or the same person leaves multiple reviews, this sort of wonderful experience is impossible for an author to see. If one book does well, you’ll see a draft effect pulling up all your sales up.

Optimizing your keywords can help bring in people searching for particular topics and interests, and even put your book into a specialty category, like Space Military or Sword and Sorcery. Reaching the top 20 (first page) of a specialty sublist can help your book. Publishers can use twice the tags we can and end up on all sorts of inaccurate categories. I think Game of Thrones dominated about seven. Beware of reaching too far. I had a transgender character in the K2 Virus, so I added the transgender tag. I hit #8 on that list and my “people who bought this” list got pretty hard-core, scaring away my military fans. It’s a fine balance.

Know your target audience. My first two series sold best to IT professionals trying to avoid work on Monday afternoon. I spiked 40 percent of my sales that day. Weekends and Tuesdays were dead. On the plus side, I know exactly what day to target my sales on for the biggest surge. However, fans are creatures of habit and tropes. You may not mesh best with every group. My 10 sci-fi novels outsold my 10 fantasies over 2 to 1.If you take out one fluke success, the ratio is 6 to 1. That tells me where I should be concentrating my future efforts.

+ Writing a book in a new genre is even more labor intensive and tends to garner only half the sales of a comparable book in your “known” field. I saw this when I tried YA, horror, and medical thrillers. The little scribbler in my head doesn’t always list to business advice. When you don’t have any hits or new books for 6 months, all sales decline, and your engine starts to stall. That’s when I spend extra time marketing and offer sales, promising the next book will be more interesting.

How do you start this engine initially?
People are reluctant to fork over $2.99 and hours of their life to an unknown. A sufficient number of positive reviews can induce someone to take the risk. My first reviews came from exchanging reviews with a pool of indie writers. Use this sparingly and only with someone you know for quality writing. As an indie, I’ll have to admit that 80 percent of what I read from fellow wannabes I couldn’t endorse. About 10 percent of the time, correcting grammar or spelling got my head ripped off. Romance writers are the trickiest because as a confirmation teacher and husband to a medical provider with whom I share an Amazon account, I can’t publicly rate gay dungeon porn. Find a small group of writers you can trust, and rely on most of them for feedback to improve the quality of your work.

+ One book with a bad reputation can kill the entire series and depress all your sales. Excellence must come before you expose the work to the world.

When I first started writing on Amazon, free giveaways were the best way to bootstrap reviews for a new book. Half the Amazon chart is still Indie books. Although, so many classic titles and permafree first books in a series clog the top of the list (90 percent in science fiction), that this is now much more difficult. Unless your cover art rocks and you already have about 5 glowing reviews, though, people won’t even take it for free! This is the most painful phase of any non-sequel book. In my experience, it takes 2000 free downloads to get 1 review. This means you need to hit the top twenty and hang there for days. By a perverse sense of logic, unless you already have at least 20 ratings with over 55 percent of them 5 stars, a new book isn’t likely to make the top 20 free in sci-fi. This is like getting a bank loan—you can only get it if you can prove you don’t need it. My professional friends have warned me against devaluing my work by pricing books for free on Amazon. Last time I did this, two people outside my target audience rated me a one-star because the book wasn’t what they expected. “It’s all about science.”

+ The best hidden effect of a free giveaway is linking yourself to other popular free books offered that day. You now have a slew of “People who bought this also bought” recommendations on books that could be best sellers!

When you are successful, some of the other aspiring trolls who are also on the free list can get spiteful. I’ve had one-star reviews, my best reviews marker unhelpful, and books customer tagged with “S&M”—all to knock me lower on the list so they could climb over me. Once you are mistagged, Amazon will never remove it. You have to find more friends than people who agreed with the tag to disagree before it becomes invisible. However, the graffiti will always be on the wall.

+ A series book will outsell stand-alones 10 to 14 to one, with considerably less effort. Marketing is almost nothing for series books because the gateway book does all the heavy lifting.

An average first book in the series will ensure a buy rate of half for each successive novel. A 4 book series where the first book sold 2000 copies will sell about 4000 total. Better novels will have higher follow-on rates. Even if you take a small loss marketing book one, you can still make a profit overall. For this reason, keep book one price lower, and don’t use Amazon’s price suggestions, which tend to choke your volume by 40 percent to increase profit by 10.

How can we use free books to boost sales in a series? If you just set book 1 to free, only 1 out of 200 downloaders will ever buy book two in your series. To maximize leverage, I reduce book 1 in a series to 99 cents and drop the brand new book 2 to free. Then one in 14 downloaders is willing fork over the money for book one to be able to enjoy the freebie—a much better model.

+ For sales connect rates, nothing beats reaching your target audience with a good cover and pitch. A brief period of free or reduced price can be a worthwhile expense to help you test and refine this.

Giving away a handful of books (3-6) on Goodreads gives you the same indicator, plus puts your name on a lot of user shelves so they get notified of your later events. Half the people will even leave reviews or ratings. Half of those might post on Amazon. Be warned, however, that an increasing number of people on Goodreads sell their prizes immediately on the used market. Despite all the news releases, Amazon only allows big publishers and their own imprints access to the secret e-book giveaways.

What do we do instead? Amazon won’t let my wife review my books because she “stands to gain financially.” (Here is where all spouses of authors of any kind may snicker.)

I often had a core of friends and followers who regularly read my books, and asked them to provide a jump start. Not everyone will like every genre, so have a big list. In my experience, only half of those who promised a review will do so. Also, using the same people repeatedly will burn them out and make them less likely to respond next time. Many of these people are also too timid or polite to provide feedback. The result? In my overeagerness, I prevented a guaranteed sale and got nothing in return. A much better method is to give away a sample and teasers ahead of time to induce them to buy and pick a few individuals for constructive criticism. I still have my wife, my editor, and three others beta-read every book before posting. Some of these become seed reviews.

+ Every author needs access to a large list of loyal fans to get the word out, even if they don’t buy the book or write reviews.

What about bloggers? About 1 in 100 blogger emails without a prior relationship will result in a review. The average blogger isn’t likely to ever buy the rest of your books, because they get their fix for free from others. However, someone who rated book 1 of your series well should be willing to review book 2. Bloggers and top Vine Voice people can be very prickly to approach. Spamming once will get you blocked forever. Don’t send a mobi until they agree. Call them by name and chat a little like a human. Never expose someone’s private email to the whole list in an open group mailing—they go through great lengths to avoid junk mail. Most have a specific submission format or web form they want you to use. Unfortunately, too many are “in hiatus”, don’t take indie books, or charge a fee or donation. Amazon has strict rules forbidding that; any such review will get pulled. To send out 400 invitations for one ebook, I scanned through lists containing 2000 sites. I guarantee at least two of those sites were infected with a virus. I can’t use my writing PC for this sort of searching.

+ Ultimately, it’s not the size of your blogger list, but the quality of the relationship you have with a chosen few. These will become your foundation. They are people with lives of their own, not review machines.

How about other fans—people who bought books similar to yours on Amazon? You can glean one candidate email address for every 50 reviewer profiles you read. A high percentage of people who post their emails are other authors or bloggers. About 1 in a 100 of these email requests results in a review. Collecting prospects and sending a personalized mail to each can be very time-consuming. However, you need to be very careful. Too many emails will get you sanctioned by Amazon for spamming. If you go beyond the Also Bought list, many reviewers will rate your book “3” because it isn’t what they’re used to.

+ The best reviews come organically from satisfied paying customers. The rate of these reviews averages about 1 per 100 sold. My highest-rated book hit 1 per 50 while my lowest hovered around 1 per 400.

I wouldn’t do presales again. It locks you down for two weeks for no good reason, and people can’t rate your book or see the preview. The short burst does help rankings if you can get 7-10 the first day, you can shoot onto the top 100.  Months later, you have to sell over a hundred in two days to achieve the same rank.

+ Without advertisement and sales, books don’t tend to hit the top 20 in a category.

25 percent of the books on the paid top 40 have temporarily reduced pricing. That can spike sales for a few days and give you nice halo sales on KU. Unfortunately, without advertising or a loyal following, a book older than 30 days isn’t likely to see a benefit from lowered price.

Where should you advertise?  Tweets have been utterly useless in my experience. I even caught Bargain Booksy taking my $10 without sending any tweets! Check every single time you pay for an ad, it’s up to you to confirm it happened. Mailing lists like Reign of Reads cannot be confirmed by non-members. As a general rule of thumb, small-time ads will get you one download per dollar spent – 70 cents on the dollar return. Ereader News performance depends on the genre. I received 50 downloads K2 advertised as sci-fi, but I got 80 when I recast it as a medical thriller. I recommend doing both at once. Even older outlets like Book Barbarian and Digital Book Today seem to draw fewer readers than they did a few years ago. Over the course of a year, repeated exposure to the same list, like Fussy Librarian, can have diminishing returns. Mix the venues up if the same book goes on sale again. Beware of using too many sites at once. Many won’t let you know your schedule slot until a couple days before, and you need the freedom to move the sale. ENT can be picky and won’t let you schedule more than a month out, but many other fill up before that window. Another advertiser insists on 3 verified Kindle reviews – which equates to about 30 regular reviews. If I can get that in the first 90 days of a book, why do I need ads?

Read earned me 5 downloads for $10, perhaps because they’re primarily a romance-driven channel. ManyBooks proudly offered 20 downloads for $24. Effective mailing lists (many aren’t) only have a connect rate of about 1/670. Which means $50 for 50k mails, will get you 75 sales, earning exactly what you paid. Ripley’s This may still a useful tactic for the first book in a series, because follow-on sales for the sequels should earn another $150.  What we’re hoping for is to hit the charts in the top 100 and stick there for a while. Even holding at number 70 on the hard sci-fi chart is enough for a book to pay for itself in a few months. To reach that level for a non-sequel, we need to have over 20 reviews. Otherwise, strangers tend to be shy. In a genre where I’ve already established a following, I’ve gotten by with as few as 10, but it doesn’t stick. On average, expect a top 20 book to be over 60 percent 5 star ratings. The lowest bar seems to be for Amazon’s imprint 47 North, which can skate by with as little as 30 percent.

+ Good or bad, people are drawn to successes, perpetuating this success.
1/4th of the books on the top 40 are by the same authors as other books on the list.
1/8th of the books have TV or movie tie ins.
Near 50 reviews, I’ve heard Amazon sends people recommendation emails, giving you a further boost.

Amazon giveaways of your books (as opposed to setting the price to free) suck. In theory, you give away 50 books in exchange for following you on Amazon. In theory, giving each contestant a 1 in 100 chance to win means you’ll have five thousand new followers. Sounds great! However, about 25 percent of the contestants will drop you after the event. This isn’t possible to track because Amazon refuses to tell you how many followers you have. Also expect no added reviews based on this investment. Most recipients won’t even read the book. If they’re not readers, having them on your list is useless. Worse, if they’re not fans of your genre, a review is almost certain to harm your rating. How much does this dubious “buzz” cost you? You pay full price for the books plus taxes they don’t tell you about until the giveaway has commenced. This is over $150 for anyone getting 70 percent royalties. After the fact, they also tell you the special new ebook-only rules. If there are any books leftover after the event, you don’t get a refund like any other product would. Why would there be any left? Because it’s not open to the public by default. All the people get the link via direct email, tweet, or Facebook from you. If you recall, Facebook stopped showing your posts to all your friends years ago. That means I have to know over five thousand people who are willing to do something to get my product beforehand or I’m burning money. If I have that list, why do I need Amazon? I hit the cancel on my giveaway before a single person saw that link. Only after I phoned in to complain did they give me the money back on a gift card.

+ Having your own newsletter mailing list is a far better and cheaper solution.
I’ve started mine at 180 people. For each sale, around 12 will respond favorably and another 3 will drop. Therefore, you need a way to constantly grow this list. I used my beta readers (with permission) and a NoiseTrade giveaway. Be careful because you can’t have the book you’re giving away on Amazon or they will permafree your book. How do you build the list? Be aware that a second NoiseTrade giveaway with a newer book nets you the exact same people. You probably need to do a blog tour and give away some paper prizes.  Several friends of mine have used Rafflecopter successfully with two caveats. One, they gave away a Kindle, not books. Two, the Rafflecopter Facebook app is buggy and didn’t get me a single contestant (and people tried). In all the successful cases, you need to collect from a pool other than the one you’ve already fished out.

In closing, I’ll point out that a few reviews asked for gift copies through Amazon. AVOID THIS. Amazon takes full price plus tax, and it doesn’t even show as a sale until after it gets claimed. A third of recipients, even those who asked for it, don’t claim them. That means no sales rank, no author share, and no money back. Worse even redeemed, it is not counted as verified purchase. I’ve even had people return them to Amazon for the cash to buy something else. In six years, I’ve never had one Amazon gift result in a review. Mailing them the mobi or PDF is better.

I tried my first Facebook post boost. I paid $15 to reach 2-3000 fantasy fans with news about a free book giveaway on Noisetrade. The tool link Facebook sent back to record progress of the boost was broken, so I had to rely on the page statistics. One tool on the page said 1100 reached, while the other said 980. Neither came close to what they promised. Of those reached, only 66 engaged. I got 10 likes on the post and dedicated book page, but NOBODY clicked through to the giveaway. Maybe no one wanted to give Noisetrade their info. Result, I paid people $1.50 a piece for likes on a web page I post on once a year. I'll try again on a sci-fi book with a better cover when it goes free on Amazon.

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